Lagoon Letter 3

I promised to write about where we live. 

Well, to start, we live in a house that isn’t really a house.   It’s really a community building, called an “abai,” built several years ago for the Palauan community on Yap.  There is one large room (maybe 25’ x  40’) where we have set up our cots.  There is one kitchen area (fridge, two-burner hot plate, toaster oven) and one bathroom (one shower, two toilets).  Oh, and there is the glorious back porch, from which we overlook the ocean.  That’s it.  Three rooms and a porch. 

The abai is pretty palatial by local standards., but folks back home are usually more interested in what the house does NOT have.  For example, it has no air conditioning or hot water.  It has no internet (a source of frustration in these 24-7 wifi connected times).  It occasionally has no electricity (until Yap’s diesel generators are turned back on).  And, it has no privacy — a classic experiment in communal living. 

For the experiment to work, we have to get along.  It’s that simple.  For that, we have house meetings every few nights to discuss how things are going.  As you might expect, comments range from “Who has my sunscreen?” to “We need to do house chores tomorrow!”  We have a budget for house supplies (fans, cleaning supplies, etc.) that must be managed, and schedules (“Who’s working tomorrow and who’s diving?”) to maintain. 

And, with any trip to the tropics, there is the reality that people get tired and have hard days.  These are discussed, too.  If there is one great truth in the tropical 3rd world, it is that you cannot hide from the sun.   The sun wears on you.  If a hard day gets in your way, you take a day off from work.  You relax and recover.  So far, we have been fortunate to not have any injuries or illnesses.  The worst so far is a mild heat rash.  We have an extensive first aid kit, so are prepared.

But another way to describe where we live is by our location on Yap.  We live in the village of Worwoo within the municipality of Rull.  We are about a 5-minute walk from Colonia, the only thing resembling a town on Yap.  Colonia has all of the islands restaurants, dive shops, and grocery stores, as well as all of the government buildings.  

Our neighbors come from the atolls of Woleai, Satawal, Eurapik, and Ulithi.   Their homes are made of 2x4s and corrugated sheet metal.  Many have even fewer things than we do (no refrigerator, no indoor kitchen).  As best they can, while on Yap, they work to maintain their traditional customs of dress, diet, and routine.  Part of that has meant being extremely gracious hosts for us during our stay.  They have brought us bananas, coconuts, and mangoes.  We have shared clams (collected during one of our dive trips by a dive guide from Satawal), only to have them returned to us cooked in a coconut lime sauce, much to our gastronomic delight.

I will stop here because it is late and we are getting up early tomorrow to go mangrove kayaking in the village of Maa.  I also need to tell you about our work projects, including a wonderful day spent at the Yap Catholic High School.   There’s so much to describe!


Lagoon Letter 2 – Sunset

In the last Lagoon Letter, I described our hike up Mt. Madeqdeq to see the sun rise.  On Friday, we hiked the Tamilyog Trail to watch the sun set.  Unlike most stone paths, the Tamilyog Trail is accessible to everyone.  Traditionally, it was a major thoroughfare used for long distance walking journeys across the island.  In other words, it was the I-85 of Yap.  

We went to the village of Kanif (on the western end of the trail) hiked up to the resting platform at the top of the hill.  We saw large fruit bats (totally harmless since they only eat … fruit) and a variety of birds (crimson honeycatchers, tropic white birds, and others).

Spelling YAP with the sunset

  Then, we waited for the sun to do its thing.  Eventually, it did.  In a moment of inspiration, we spelled out Yap with the sunset as your background.   On the way down the trail, we hiked in darkness surrounded by fireflies.

Will and Kelsey’s visit 

On Monday night, Will Massey (Queens ’08) and Kelsey Hansen (Queens ’11) stopped by to share some of their wisdom about Yap.  Both Will and Kelsey teach at the local high school. Will teaches English literature and writing.  Kelsey teaches Science.  In Yapese fashion, we gathered in a circle and started sharing stories.  We learned to never step over a person’s betel nut basket, to never (ever) throw food, and to always keep your voice low. 

Kelsey and Will share their knowledge of Yap.

Yapese culture appreciates quiet.  Having Queens alumni living on Yap has given students from Queens’ culture a unique window into Yapese culture.  Will and Kelsey are able to describe the latter in terms of the former.

Lagoon Letter 1

You already know this, but Yap is a hard place to get to.

We’ve arrived!!

Leaving Charlotte at 5:40 AM means arriving at the airport at 4:15, which means leaving home at 3:45, which means waking up at 3:15, which often means … not going to sleep. From Charlotte, it’s a matter of four flights, five airports, and 30+ hours of sitting. Then, you’re on Yap. 1:00 AM. Scratchy-eyed and restless. Thrilled to finally be here, but exhausted. We were met at the airport by John Waayan (long-time friend of Queens and current Director of Yap’s Land Resources Office), and Will Massey and Kelsey Hansen (former Queens students now teaching at Yap High School). They transported us safely to our new home in the village of Worwoo, and we fell asleep quickly on our cots.

Our first day on island was spent getting acclimated. We unpacked our things, took inventory of needed house supplies, and went shopping. We walked around the lagoon, stopping in the little stores and bakeries along the way. Margie Falanruw (another long-time friend of Queens on Yap) stopped by to give us a phone and talk about our upcoming work projects. Margie is a field scientist and mentor to all of us while we’re here. – an absolute treasure. Later in the day, we visited with Dieter Kudler, owner of Yap Divers, our scuba partner on Yap. Not everyone is getting scuba certified, but many are. In future blog entries, I will describe our work and play.

The view from Mt. Madeqdeq

Every student made the hike up Mt. Madeqdeq to watch the sun rise over the Pacific.

One of the truly wonderful things about jet lag on Yap is that you wake up in the morning as if you’ve been popped out of a toaster. Yap is 14 hours ahead of Charlotte (5:00 AM on Yap = 3:00 PM in Charlotte). To take advantage of this wonderful discombobulation, we hiked to the top of Mt. Madeqdeq to watch the sun rise over the Pacific to find our small island. With headlamps and water bottles, we ventured up the path. We were not disappointed.

The view from our back porch

So, after our first few days on Yap, we are getting settled. We have moved in, hung hammocks, and met our neighbors (especially the puppies!). We have bought groceries, hiked, and learned that we can snorkel off our back porch. Importantly, we have met our work counterparts (from multiple agencies). We have learned that what we are about to do on Yap makes a real and positive difference.

And, we have also already learned this: while Yap is a hard place to get to, it will be an even harder place to leave.


Lagoon Letter 9 – Guam’s Pagat Cave

Exploring the limestone forest near Pagat Cave.

Sunday May 29 — Today is Sunday on Kosrae, and that means going to church. In a few minutes, we’ll be off to the Community Church of Tafunsak. I have a bit of time before we leave, though, to catch you up on our last day on Guam. This was truly an unexpected highlight of our trip.

Exploring the Pagat Cave. The (fresh)water was cool and clear.

You know from a previous Lagoon Letter that Dr. Chris Lobban (University of Guam) and Mr. Leevin Camacho (a local community leader) had offered to lead the group on a hike to Pagat Cave. I have known Chris and his wife Maria for many years, so I knew this going to be a great hike. You can see from the pictures (to be added soon!) that it was simply breathtaking. Guam is a raised limestone island, with a sharply tiered shape. Like ants on a wedding cake, we hiked from the top of one stair down to the ocean. The hike was steep, slippery, and over very sharp coral fragments (deposited eons ago when Guam was under water). Getting to the coastline, though was worth every bit of the effort. And this wasn’t even the best part.

The picture speaks for itself! An exceptional group of students enjoying the view on the shoreline near Pagat Cave.

On the way back up the trail, we stopped to explore Pagat Cave, formed by erosion of the limestone by the subsurface flow of water. Though not long (~150 m), the cave was very dramatic since we could go swimming in it. That’s right. We carried scuba flashlights and masks and went cave snorkeling. There were no fish, but the water was crystal clear. Examining the stalagmites and limestone deposits underwater was incredibly cool (literally and figuratively!). We swam and echoed and splashed and took underwater cave pictures. Then we hiked, dripping and smiling all the way, back to the cars.

Lagoon Letter 8 — On Kosrae!

Sat May 28 — After taking the “island hopper” flight (Guam to Chuuk to Pohnpei to Kosrae), we finally arrived at our final destination, the island of Kosrae. We have begun to settle into our house (directly across the street from the ocean). This morning, we are off to go diving. We will go to church tomorrow (a major cultural event on Kosrae), then begin our work projects on Monday. That’s all for now. Time to go diving!

— Reed

Lagoon Letter 7 – Yap Last Days

Queens' students having a conversation with Will Massey's (Team Yap 07) Junior English class at Yap High School.

Thursday March 26 – I need to describe our last two days on Yap. As I mentioned in Lagoon Letter 6, they were a huge bag of mixed emotions.

Monday started by visiting Will Massey’s (Queens ’08) class at Yap High School. Will is the Chair of the English Department there and teaches Honors English (among other classes). We visited his class last week and had a marvelous time sharing experiences. Our students wanted to know if the Yapese highschoolers wanted to go to college (“Yes.”), what they did after school (“Nothing!”), and if they had cell phones (“Of course!!”). The Yapese students wanted to know if Queens students really studied (“Yes.”), what they didn’t like about Yap (“Nothing!”), and if they would ever come back (“Of course!!). Monday’s visit was less structured. Megan and Ray brought supplies to decorate the girls’ nails, which proved a wonderful way of generating fun conversation. The real star of the morning (surprisingly) was Ben, who has a career in cosmetology if he wants it. The hour was fast, loud, and fun.

Yap students preparing for the traditional stick dance.

Monday afternoon, we had one of the best experiences of the entire trip so far. We visited the Gagil Elementary School graduation ceremony, featuring many traditional dances. On the school grounds, the girls started with a set of sitting dances. A caller sings out the story and the “dancers” – all sitting in a single line facing the audience – follow along with synchronized hand motions. They are all dressed in traditional costume of hibiscus-fiber skirts, coconut oil and turmeric, and head bands made of plants. Next up were the boys who marched in wearing traditional thuws (or loin cloths) and joined the girls in a “stick dance.” This one is my favorite. It’s like a square dance, but with everyone swinging bamboo sticks. When adults do it, they swing so hard the sticks break and new ones are thrown in from support people on the side. Like I said, it’s my favorite. Watching these dances made us reflect on the rich history and culture of the Yapese.

Monday evening was our Going Away Reception, hosted by the Division of Land Resources (our official host agency), the Yap Visitors Bureau, the Historic Preservation Office, and the Department of Agriculture and Forestry. All of the last three agencies were our partners on our work projects. Fine speeches were made and heartfelt thanks were expressed. The students and faculty received many gifts from our counterparts: t-shirts, a miniature Yap state flag, a special “Smokey the Fruit Bat” bandana (produced by our friend Dr. Margie Falanruw, Director of the Yap Institute of Natural Science, to promote fire prevention on Yap), and other small tokens. After the gifts, we had a veritable feast of local foods: fresh sashimi, taro, cooked fish, salads, and breadfruit. We laughed and told stories of our Yap adventures to each other. It was a great evening that made everyone remember why they signed up for this trip: the chance to travel deeply into a culture and experience it on its own terms.

Alvaro and Amy showing off the tuna they caught (along with Jesse) on their boat ride.

On Tuesday, the entire Team Micronesia 2011 enjoyed a boat tour around the island (except Drs. Pillar and Perkins, who spent the morning paying electric and water bills, etc.). They went snorkeling and saw sea turtles. They went fishing and Amy, Jesse, and Alvaro caught tuna “island style” – that is, using nothing but a line and lure (no pole!). Everyone also got sun burned – a not-so-gentle reminder that we are in the tropics! Upon our return, we frantically organized, packed, and cleaned our house. When our chores were done, we had a few hours left to visit with the many people coming by to wish us well. So, we sat and laughed and listened and talked until 11:30 pm came, bringing with it the trucks transporting us to the airport.

And, at 2:30 am, we left Yap. As we sat in our seats, we stared out the plane windows at the little island we called home — incredibly glad we came, sad it was time to leave, and hopeful the rest of the trip will be as wonderful.

– Reed

Team Yap 2011

Lagoon Letter 6 — On Guam!

Wed May 25 — We are now on Guam! I just have a second here, but do promise to describe our last days on Yap in another post. They were wonderful and happy and sad (at the thought of leaving).

As for our time on Guam, we arrived on island at 4:00 am this morning, slept until 1-2, then, for the remainder of the day, reveled in the novelty of air-conditioning and hot water. Tomorrow, we are going on a hike through a limestone forest and ancient Chamorro village (Chamorros are the native people on Guam). At the end of that hike, we will be exploring Pagat Cave. We are fortunate to have local guides Dr. Chris Lobban (University of Guam, Biology) and Mr. Leevin Camacho (local resident and community leader). They will be sharing everything they know about Guam and the local places.

– Reed

Lagoon Letter 5 – The Storm

The satellite image of Tropical Storm Songda at about 6am Sunday morning (May 22nd).

Friday May 20 — As I write this, a tropical depression is slowly making its way to Yap. These cells form somewhere to the east and migrate westward, picking up energy and intensity as they go. Since Friday, there has been a lot of talk about the path of the storm. We’ve checked the satellite images to see where it might go. All indications are that Yap is right in the cross hairs. The storm is expected to hit Saturday night to Sunday morning.

Strong winds and rain started late Saturday night and persisted well into Monday morning.

Saturday May 21 — The group diving trip was canceled this morning. We were really looking forward to it because diving is a big activity for us. But, the water was too rough. Instead we lounged about the house, catching up on journal entries and reading books. The weather was overcast and windy. No rain, but even without a satellite image, we can tell a storm is on its way. Lots of friends and neighbors have stopped by to let us know that a storm is brewing and that we better prepare. The friendship and concern shown by the Yapese is incredibly real and kind. A neighbor with a large flatbed truck is at the ready to transport us to higher ground, if needed. Our destination will be the Land Resources

office located 150 ft above sea level and tucked into the topography to minimize wind exposure. Land Resources is our host agency on Yap, and they have done a magnificent job taking care of us. Their building is the perfect escape location. It was built after Typhoon Sudal (a category 4 storm in 2004) and is typhoon-proof with storm shutters on the windows, a reinforced roof, and concrete walls. Plus, it’s within a 3-minute walk of FSM Telecom, the national telecommunication center, which ensures that no matter what happens, we will still be able to update our Facebook status. So, we are, in all ways, typhoon-ready!

Sunday May 22 — The storm came last night, and Yap turned into a set from the Weather Channel. Winds clocked 60 mph and rain “fell” horizontally. Shouts became whispers. People ran with their heads under their shirts. Power was knocked out, and everyone rummaged for their candles and flashlights. We knew our maximum risk would come at 11:30 pm, when the high tide coupled with the storm surge. So, we checked the conditions at 11:30, but the water was still below our sea wall. We knew then we would not have to move to higher ground. When we woke up, the banana trees in our front yard were blown over, and there were lots of leaves plastered against building walls, but no significant damage. The locals brought by bananas, plantains, and made sure we had enough to eat in case the power went out again. They offered to help clean the debris from our yard. We offered to help drive them where they needed to go to visit relatives. We helped each other.

Unfortunately the storm claimed a couple banana trees in front of our house.

So, there you have it. A tropical depression turned storm in the Pacific. You probably didn’t hear anything about it back home in the States, but it sure shaped life on Yap for a few days. Funny how life is on small islands. Small things become big and important. Previously big things become small. And that’s what a tropical storm brings.

Lagoon Letter 4 – Our First Week!

Wed May 18 –  It’s hard to believe, but we’ve been on Yap for a full week.  In many ways, it seems as if we’ve just arrived (we are still on our first jar of group peanut butter, for example), but in other ways, we feel as if we’ve been here forever.  We know every restaurant in Colonia and the waitresses by name, usually because they live down the street from us.  Friends honk and wave as we walk into town.  “Blue Lagoon,” “YCA,” “the lagoon,” “the dive dock,” and “the bridge” are part of our collective lexicon (temporarily replacing “The Caf,” “Diana Fountain,” and “McEwen”).   Most importantly … by our pace and rhythm and walk and time … we are integrated into the ebb and flow of normal Yapese day.  Or, should I say, the Yapese day is integrated into us.

We wake around 8:00, organizing work teams by 9:00 (okay, maybe 10:00 since this is Yap), working until a lunch break at 12:00 (okay, maybe 11:00), then continue to work until 3:00 or 4:00 (okay, maybe 2:00).   Yesterday, we finished work a bit early and explored one of the ancient stone paths on the island.  The path, linking the villages of Kanif and Kaday, is one that I know well, since previous years’ groups lived in Kanif.  Still, I felt the need to secure permission from local leaders before bringing a group there.  Virtually every part of Yap – every fish, tree, and coconut – is privately owned.  But, we did get permission, and enjoyed the walk.  Custom dictates that all visitors on a stone path carry a green sprig from a plant.  This sends the message that you mean no harm.  Of course, we didn’t, so we did.

As I mentioned in a previous Lagoon Letter, we started work this week.   Two teams are mapping the Imperata grass, a species so invasive it has created “green deserts” in Asia – tens of acres of nothing but Imperata.  It spreads both aerially by seeds (similar to a dandelion) and through rhizomes (or roots) (like Bermuda grass).  We have partnered with the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, and the students have thoroughly enjoyed working with the locals.  I’ll give you the results of our work in a later posting.

One team is mapping roads (previously unmapped) usable by the fire crews to fight fires.  This project has grown out of the fire department’s difficulty in accessing the more remote locations on Yap.  Only a few roads are paved.  A few more are identifiable as gravel or two-tracks.  Most “roads” are simply bush trails completely overgrown by vegetation.

Tomorrow, we start working with the Yap Visitors Bureau to map ten sites.  On Friday, we work with the Historic Preservation Office to map sites of deeper historic significance: men’s houses, stone paths, and other places.

On other notes, the “three mosquitoes” (Emily, Ray, and Megan) are now fully certified as scuba divers!  That means EVERYONE is now certified to dive.  We will celebrate this fact with a group dive on Saturday.

More postings soon!

—  Reed

Lagoon Letter 3 – A Lazy Sunday

Sunday May 15 — Just a quick update here. As of today ten of the 13 students are officially scuba certified! Yeah!! Kat, Kelsey, Sara Beth, Alex, Jesse, Matt, Taylor, and Amy have completed all of the dives and coursework. Emily, Ray, and Megan just have a few dives to go, then they will be certified, too. Yesterday, the divers went out to Miil Channel hoping to see some manta rays. These are impressive (but completely harmless) creatures with wingspans of up to 14 feet. Alas, we did not see any mantas, but we did see lots of great sealife, including a pufferfish, sea turtle, mantis shrimp, and plenty of grey cartilaginous fish near the reef. Besides diving, we went kayaking through the mangrove forest that fringes 80% of Yap. Kayaking the mangroves really connected with our classwork back on campus where we learned the different species of mangrove trees, as well as the very cool adaptations they have developed to survive in their crazy fresh+saltwater, ocean+land, high+low tide environment (for example: stilt roots, salt water extrusion through their leaves, and seeds that begin growing before they even leave the trees).

As for today … well, Yap is currently the center of a tropical low pressure cell, so it has been wonderfully drizzly and overcast the entire day. In the hot tropics, you learn to cherish clouds and gentle rain. It’s the kind of day that calls for sitting on the back patio watching seabirds glide and squawk in the sky. We did manage to clean the house and do laundry at the Laundromat, but mostly, today has been a back porch day. This evening, we have special guests coming over. Three current or former Peace Corps Volunteers, the aforementioned Mr. Will Massey (see Lagoon Letter 1), and Vanessa Fread (a local Yapese woman, see Lagoon Letter 1) will be dropping by to share their thoughts about living on Yap, adapting to Yap, and suggestions for how to better understand Yapese culture. This should be an invaluable experience for all of us.

We start work tomorrow, and that will be an eye-opening day for all of us!

— Reed